Across the Field and Into the Woods

As soon as I was down, we crossed the road and walked downhill in the ditch, westward, to Rocky. He was chewing on some kind of bone that appeared to have been in plastic, which he’d pulled out. We tried calling for him again but received no acknowledgement. As we approached we could see he was chewing on a set of ribs and that there was a carcass of some sort wrapped in plastic. Jesse was a little nervous about looking at the carcass, being wrapped in plastic and thrown in a ditch was very suspicious. It turns out it was just a deer carcass. But why was it wrapped in plastic? Jesse pulled Rocky away from it. Rocky took a piece with him. We walked across the road again trying to keep Rocky near. We then walked in the ditch along the road, uphill and eastward again. For whatever reason, Rocky wanted to walk on the road instead of in the ditch. We scolded him and called him and finally got him to explore the ditch. We passed the spot we came down the hill. The bluff became even steeper as we walked along side it. I said, “It’s a good thing we came down where we did; we wouldn’t have been able to climb down that.” The rounded bluff gave way to a rocky flat ledge. “There’s the old road bed.” Trees and a ravine separated us from the stone structure. Jesse led us further up to where there was a trail going into the trees at the head of the structure. We were both quite warm at this point, so Jesse took his hat and gloves off and put them on an old fencepost. I carefully set the antler on top of them. Jesse climbed down in to the ravine. I followed after him. Toward the bottom I had to slide down the rest of the way. There was a stone culvert in the stone bridge/structure. Jesse and I had gone inside it a few years ago and were amazed at how quiet it was inside. This time the remains of a dead animal lay at the mouth of the culvert. Jesse wasn’t so sure about going in without a flashlight not knowing what might be living inside. So Jesse explored the rest of the short ravine. Rocky explored above us. I was curious about the dead animal so I got closer to it and bent down. It was either a young coyote or a gray fox. How did it die? And how long had it been dead? Jesse came back to look at it more closely too. Apparently this part of the ditch was a dump site, old rusty pails, something that looked to be a rug (hard to tell with the snow on top), a chair and other items. It made me angry that people dumped stuff here instead of disposing of it properly. We climbed out of the ravine, Jesse first. Sliding in the snow and almost falling we made our way back up. Jesse said, “I don’t remember it being this bad going down.”

I replied, “Because this isn’t where we came down.”

We followed the trail along the old road bed. Jesse wondered why pine trees only grew in this spot. Again I didn’t have an answer. If we had continued on this trail we would have stepped out on to the rock pile we were looking for. Instead, we didn’t go very far on it before turning northward, stepping over an old rusty barbed wire fence. Jesse led us up the bluff, this part wasn’t steep and the trees weren’t as close together nor was there much underbrush to grab hold of our feet to trip us up. Our feet crunched in the snow. We saw more raccoon and deer tracks. Rocky came toward our general direction but wasn’t close to us and made his own paths, following his nose. We walked up the hill to the edge of the woods, a rolling field opened up before us. Jesse told me they owned half of it and rented the other half. Then we turned around and headed back down the hill. Before going down the drop to the road bed, we halted. Jesse sat down and then reclined in the snow, feet stretched out before him, leaning on his elbows. I sat down too, a little above him. Rocky continued to wander around. We listened to the birds. A woodpecker drilled on a tree some distance away across a ravine that came to the culvert on the other side. A few birds were chanting in the trees all around us. Jesse asked what they were but I wasn’t sure. Then Jesse saw a bird fly out of the tree and landed on a branch of another, making that noise. He asked if I saw the bird. It took a few moments before I saw it. It was a good sized woodpecker. I told Jesse, “I think it’s a red bellied woodpecker.”

He replied, “But it doesn’t have red belly but a red head.”

“Yeah, it’s confusing; it means it has a red head and a big belly.”

Jesse thought it should have been named a little differently. We watched the bird hop along the tree branch for a few moments before it flew away. Mindful that it had taken us over an hour to get this far and it was approaching three o’clock, I reluctantly told Jesse we should probably start heading back. Though we really didn’t want to, we decided it would be best to get up anyway since our backsides were soaked through. We headed back down the bluff to the road bed, the way we’d come, then followed the trail back to where we’d left the hat, gloves and antler. While we picked those up, Rocky explored the bottom of the ravine. We called for him; he took a few moments to come back up to us. Jesse decide it would be needless back tracking and put us much lower on the bluff if we went back down along the road and up the former snowmobile trail. Instead we crossed the road, hiked up in the ditch a little bit to get beyond the gaping ravine between the road behind us and the bluff. We climbed up and up, over fallen branches, through the trees and the brambles; angling southwest as we went. We stepped over an old fence. I was hot and sweaty, out of breath and stumbling now and then. Jesse teased me asking what’s wrong. I told him it had been awhile since I’d walked longer than an hour. He told me I should work on that. Soon we were to the top of the bluff, on the edge between the woods and the pasture. Rocky crawled under the fence and wandered around in the pasture. Jesse and I walked westward along the fence to find the best place to crawl under the fence. Jesse scooted under the wire first. I followed behind, still holding on to the antler. We walked along the fence in the pasture for a ways. We saw turkey tracks in the snow. The pasture turned southwest and then south. Up ahead was the pond. We were walking where Rocky had been on our way out. We walked down along the dike a little on the pond, this time we were on the east side of it. We turned eastward, hiking up the slope, and arrived back at the first gate. Out of the pasture and up the slope even further until we were on top of the hill. We were further to the east then what we’d been going out. Jesse was surprised we couldn’t see our tracks. The sun still glared on the snow. I was growing quite weary. Rocky had left us and was far out in the field southwest of us. We crested the hill and started to go downward again, now we could see our footprints and joined up with them. We stepped over the fence again. Jesse remarked how we didn’t walk in a straight line, even for a short distance our steps were zig-zagged. Down the ditch and back up it, across the gavel road and backyard, we’d come full circle.

Across the Field and Into the Woods (Part II)

We continued walking. Rocky, still opposite us, was close to the bottom of the ravine. Trees overhung the trail. Through an opening in the branches, we could look across the way to another set of bluffs, bathed in sunshine. Jesse paused to take in the view, I came up alongside him. He asked, “Why are there cedar trees on that bluff but not a single one on this bluff?”

“I don’t know.”

“Probably has something to do with this being a north facing slope and that a south facing slope. Maybe it doesn’t like shade.”

“That could be.”

Onward, we resumed our decent, taking in the trees as we walk. Looking up at the trees, at circular leaf bundles in the top most branches of a few of the trees, Jesse asked, “Are those squirrel caches?”

“Yes, they’re made by squirrels.”

“Why do they store stuff way up there? So that other critters don’t get them?”

“I’m not sure; I don’t know much about squirrels.”

“Well why not?” he teased me.

“I can’t know everything.”

We reached the end of the trail, Rocky had joined us for the last little bit. It curved northwestward, leaving the ravine behind, which seemed to curve a little to the northeast or meet up with another going east west rather than south north. The trail took us to the highway. I told Jesse we needed to make sure Rocky crossed the road with us. It took a bit of coaxing to get Rocky to come with us but once we had his attention the three of us crossed the road. I’m always fascinated by how much bigger roads feel when you are walking on them rather than driving. Across the road, through the ditch and back into the trees, Rocky wandered away from us again, though staying mostly in sight of us and heading the same direction. Jesse immediately led us eastward up the bluff following deer trails. We were looking for a specific spot, which we hadn’t approached from this direction before. We wanted to go to the big pile of limestone rocks made when blasting was done to build the new road. We no longer had the luxury of an open trail, the trees were closer together and crowded the very narrow deer path; requiring us to do lots of ducking under branches and pushing branches aside. We were poked and grabbed at by branches as we passed. Some places we were trying not to be tripped by brambles. And upward we climbed, a most difficult path certainly, and yet the difficulties were what made it an exhilarating adventure, compounded by the good exercise we were giving our bodies. Up, up, up we climbed. We sometimes stumbled, grasping on to trees to keep our balance, being stabbed with thorns. The bluff side above and below us was steep, losing our footing and sliding down would be quite painful. We were now far above the road and ditch. We seemed to be walking on the very edge. Rocky walked above us, having a much easier time at it. Jesse wondered several times if this was the best way to go or if we should go further up. But we decided to keep on our present course. Sometimes we were bent over so far we were practically crawling. We halted a few times but only for a moment. The snow added to the difficulty of the trail. We didn’t travel with ease, elegance or agility as the noble creatures who created this trail. Yet following their trail though clumsily we were close to the white tail deer, their presence was all around us in many trails traversing the bluff, the tracks in the trail, the occasional pile of droppings, and sharing the experience of steadily climbing upward past the grabby tree branches, each step taken with care. And an even greater treasure and link connecting us to the majestic creatures was given to us.”I found an antler shed!” Jesse said.

“Really?” I asked excitedly.

“Yes, really!” Jesse replied, picking it up and turning around to show me.

“Cool! I’ve looked for sheds a couple of times and haven’t found any.” We examined it very closely. I was eager to feel it, to hold it and have the connection with the magnificent buck who’d dropped it. Jesse held it as we looked at the markings on it; something had been chewing n on it. Jesse wondered what kind of animal had chewed on it and if it was for the calcium, like dogs chewing on bones. Jesse wondered about the age of the buck. We speculated it was of decent size and at least a few years old. Jesse also wondered if it felt weird to have only one antler – did it feel lop-sided? Of course, we decided to keep it. The ends were pointed and sharp. Parts of it were smooth and other parts bumpy. Jesse gave the antler to me. It felt heavier than I’d expected. Being a very tactile person, I loved the feel and texture of the antler. I felt instantly connected to the buck. I wondered about his life. It was amazing – I loved it.  Jesse took the antler back as we continued walking up and up and still ducking under tree branches. Rocky was below us now. We called for him but he didn’t listen. We continued onward, keeping an eye on him. He went even further down and was soon in the ditch, then across the road and westward a little bit. We called for him but he didn’t pay any attention to us. (At some point Jesse gave the antler to me.) He found something in the ditch across the road. We continued to call him but he was totally involved in whatever he found in the ditch.

“He must have found a dead animal or something,” I said.

“He’s pulling on something,” Jesse said.

“It looks like a piece of plastic.” We tried calling him again but he continued to ignore us.

Jesse asked, “Should we go get him?”

“Yeah, we should go get him. If he gets on the road he could get hit.”

We assessed the bluff below us to find a way down. It was nearly vertical, not much of a slope. Using the trees, Jesse more or less scooted down the hill, somewhat leaping into the ditch at the bottom. He looked back up at me and he told me it was my turn. Jesse had the advantage of height and both hands available. I stepped closer to the edge and paused to survey the way down, trying to decide how best to go about it. Walking down wasn’t an option, staying low was the safest way. The trees stopped halfway down, perhaps sooner. And I had to go down with only one hand for support. “The challenge is not stabbing myself on the way down,” I said, getting low to the ground and figuring out the best way to hold the antler. Jesse encouraged me as I began to scoot down, and continued to do so my whole way down. At first I grabbed hold of the trees with my hand, and then stretched out my foot to the next tree down to slow my progress. All too soon though there weren’t any more trees to hold on to. I eased my way down further, using rocks to catch my feet, almost spider crawling my way down, cradling the antler in one arm the whole time. Rocks dislodged and skipped down the hill to land near Jesse’s feet. I really wasn’t nervous and was quite enjoying myself, with the great outdoors as my playground my whole life, this wasn’t my first time doing this, not even close, but it was my first time scooting down a steep hillside while holding on to a pointy antler. When I reached the spot where Jesse had more or less leaped down, I paused a moment. Jesse said something about catching me. The last seven or so feet was much steeper. Jesse would have helped me if I needed it, but I was determined. I was now completely on my backside, clutching the antler to my chest, I slide down a little further, once I was a bit closer to the ground, I leapt down, hitting the ground kind of at a run. That was fun! To be sure I’ll be doing that again, though maybe not with the antler.

Across the Field and Into the Woods (Part I)

Feb 5, 2017

It was a nice day for a winter walk; sunny, temperature around thirty, with a breeze. Jesse and I set out around 1:30 pm, out the back door, through the backyard and under the pine trees, across the road, and into the snow covered field, in a northward direction. Rocky, the dog, followed us or rather he walked in the same general direction we did but made his own path sometimes far from us. Once across the gravel drive, we stepped down into the ditch and the field. Snow crunched underfoot. The conditions were just right so that most often we barely sunk into the snow. We’d only gone a few yards into the field before we came to a temporary fence, stretching east to west across our path. The posts were just small white fiberglass posts with s single strand, not so much wire but string. Jesse stepped over it with ease. Being considerably shorter, I had to be more mindful, stepping over very cautiously being sure not to touch the strand. Rocky had already walked under it and wandered around in the field some distance away. We tramped through the snow, across the large field. In some places, the snow was soft and in others hard and crusty. The snow glared brightly in the full sun. The snow varied in depth, it was deep and crusty where it had drifted, blown by fierce winds, but shallow, barely covering the ground where the wind had gathered it from and the sun had melted. With the easy walking across the open field we made very good time. The field is on a hill, it sloped down toward another fence, this one permanent high tensile fence. Jesse angled us slightly to the east to get us to the gate, there was no stepping over this fence. As we veered northeast, walking down the slope, a large hawk flew overhead and landed on the hill southeast of us, quite a long distance away. It was too bright to take a good look at it as it flew over so we weren’t able to identify it. We halted to take a look at it but we could only just make out its silhouette. Jesse marveled at the large bird and wondered why it had landed in the field.

We continued onward to the fence. We rounded the corner post to the gate which was two coiled, springy wires, like a slinky, with a plastic handle, to avoid being shocked and a metal hook on the end. Jesse unhooked the top wire. Holding on the corner post for balance, I stepped over the bottom wire. Then Jesse stepped over it, again, it was much easier for him to so he didn’t grab the corner post for support. He then re-hooked the wire, closing the gate. Now we were in a pasture. Jesse took the lead again, this time taking us northwest, downhill toward a big manmade pond. There was evidence that the pond had thawed and refroze a couple of times recently. Jesse wondered about the thickness of the ice and whether or not we should walk on it. I weighed in that we should be careful about walking on it. As we drew nearer, Jesse decided we should go around it. So we skirted the pond, heading up the northwest slope above it. Rocky chose to go around it on the northeast side. A dike stretched across the north end. Woods make a point on the other side of the dam, sloping downward. A deep ravine cut down the hill side perpendicular to the dam. On the slope above and almost even with the dam, we found coyote tracks in the snow. It’s always fun to see that they are around. We came to another fence and go through the already open gate. Large trees rose up on our right side, on the east. We walked across a very small pond, more like just a place where water will pool. More coyote tracks. Jesse wondered, “How do birds get water in the winter time?” I didn’t really have an answer for him. We climbed up out of the pond area, following a deer track. A few feet away, on our right, was an orange, metal pipe gate. As Jesse approached the gate he said, “I’d like to see tracks in the snow from the wing tips of an owl or hawk chasing and catching a rodent.”

I replied, “I have seen wing tip tracks in the snow, it is pretty cool.” Jesse undid the chain and opened the gate. We left the pasture behind and entered the woods. Near the gate, the wood and ravine were narrow. On the other side, Rocky was trotting in the pasture near the fence. As we began waking downhill, and further into the woods, Rocky found a way under the fence and explored the woods on the opposite side of the ravine from us, but heading more or less in the same direction. We hiked down a narrow old road, hugging the side of the bluff as it made its way down it, the ravine which became increasingly deeper and wider yawned on our right. Somewhat across from the gate, where the ravine is just a small ditch, is an old limestone foundation, the remains of a homestead. The first time Jesse brought me here, he told me people once drove Model-Ts up that trail. More recently it was a snowmobile trail, now it’s an easy trail for Jesse and I to hike down the bluff – hiking back up is not so easy. The trail is laden with branches, sticks, rocks, and in some places, during the summer, it gets overgrown with vegetation. It is also quite steep with short flat stretches or a gentle incline before resuming steepness. As always, I enjoy the trees, their beauty and relaxing power, as we walk under and among them. Jesse enjoys them too, at one point he said, “Behold, the mighty white pine,” when a white pine stuck out conspicuously from the deciduous trees around it across the ravine. It was indeed a mighty tree, tall, stately, fairly straight and with a large circumference. We observed several sets of raccoon tracks here and there along the trail. This spot is one of my favorites, it’s just so lovely. As we descended further and further down the bluff, the top of it loomed and then towered above us, an impressive sight, lending a fresh perspective on just how small we are. The side of the bluff just drops away on our right into the yawning deep ravine, going over the edge would be disastrous, which is part of the thrill and majesty of this place. The sun filters through the trees above us. In some places, layers of sedimentary rock are exposed. Somewhere close to halfway down, on the bluff slope above us, are two very large limestone rock formations, two halves of a whole. They had once been one piece, now cleaved in half with a good sized gap between them. Jesse pondered when and how they’d been split apart, and did it happen very slowly over time, or quickly in one day? Did it happen hundreds or thousands of years ago or in the last fifty years or perhaps even more recently than that? Did it make a loud noise or silently drift apart? Again, I had no answer, though this time he didn’t expect me to. It would take a geologist with special equipment to venture an answer to the why, how, and when, and even then it may only be speculation. I had an urge to leave the trail, climb up the bluff and check out the rock formations and possibly climb them, may be next time.

Exploration in August (Part II)

honey-and-canoeing-155We continued westward. A beautiful cottonwood tree towered above us, leaves shining in the morning sun. A birch tree mingled with it, growing up between branches of the cottonwood. A dead snag leaned into the water, one end dipping beneath the water’s surface. I’m not sure why it appealed to me but I loved it. Another snag stuck up out of the water, two branches breaking off from the main limb right away, one on either side, and then another smaller branch off to the left. The main limb split in a “Y”, and each of those limbs also split, more into a “V” then a “Y”. A shadow was cast in the water by the “V” on the right side. Simply lovely. Like antlers of a mythical deer. Wild rice was thick directly ahead of us, with trees beyond it. There were a few dead trees standing among the living ones. Again, I noticed some of the trees were beginning to change color – yellow and orange. A large bird, possibly a goose flew over, far in the distance. Large mystery snails floated at the water’s surface, half submerged like a boat.

honey-and-canoeing-163We were back on the main channel, now a tiny stream; I think the canoe was almost as long as the channel was wide, a wall of tall wild rice on either side of us. It felt very secluded, the rice towering over us. The bluffs appeared to be peeking above it. Trees could be seen over the top of the rice directly ahead and ahead to our right. At times the channel width seemed to shrink even more, smaller than the length of the canoe. We were lost in a world of blue sky and wispy clouds, towering green wild rice, trees and bluffs peeking above. It no longer seemed vast with the wild rice almost closing us off from all else and yet I still felt very small, in the best of way. An experience I was glad to have. The heads of the rice plants were really cool looking. I reached out to touch the plants to get a feel for them, careful not to touch the heads. In some places the wild rice all but obscured the trees ahead to the right. We startled a rail, with a ruckus it flew off, above the rice and disappeared.

honey-and-canoeing-168We were approaching the second “island”, with the trees more in a clump. A dead tree stood off to the left of them, where I had seen the kingfisher fly when we first put in. The channel had opened up more, the nearer we got to that island of trees, though still a fraction of its size this spring. The channel also turned slightly right, to the northeast. The lovely clump of trees was reflected on the water’s surface – finally a wide enough pool of water to perfectly mirror the trees. Absent were the honking geese of May. Past the trees the channel shrunk considerably in size again as the channel was filled in thickly with wild rice again. The very last of the trees was much shorter than the others and stood a little apart from them, the wild rice was already growing thickly, reducing the channel to a small stream again before we passed that little maple tree, its leaves beginning to blush. We startled another wood duck; she flew northwest of that tree. Larry closed the distance between us and the next “island” of trees where we’d observed the muskrat. I continued to watch the wood duck until it disappeared.

honey-and-canoeing-166Past the last island of trees, we started seeing a few yellow water lilies. The wall of wild rice on either side backed away, widening the channel for a little bit. It didn’t last long however, before we were plunged back into crowding wild rice – more of these plants were in bloom, again I marveled at their beauty. The wild rice opened up again only to be replaced by a very thick patch of yellow water lilies. Larry marveled at their thickness. They were now past their glory, some of the bright green leaves were turning brown and curling up. They no longer floated on the water’s surface like pads, but stood up above the water, furled. It was amazing just how large the lily “patch” was. Wild rice didn’t grow up in the middle of the patch either though it grew thickly along the edges all the way along. I examined one of the wild rice heads more closely, like a lot of tiny trees sticking up going every which way. I reveled in the beauty of the lily leaves still alive, so green and smooth. Trees rimmed the “lake” to the northeast, still some honey-and-canoeing-178distance away. Looking closely at the water surface, coontail grew closely filling the gaps between lily pads. It did look like an animal tail but I wondered if it more resembled a fox tail than a coon tail. The bluffs, framing in the west side of the lake, appeared much larger now that we were closer. None of those trees had begun to change color though there were various shades of green. However, trees in the marsh, across the way, were beginning to change, and some already mostly orange. Larry explained, “These trees are really stressed. Water levels have been too high for too long. Probably a lot that’s left will die, not all though.” We canoed among the lilies, turning the canoe westward. My attention was snatched by a blue damselfly hovering over a lily pad. It didn’t stay in one place for long. We continued westward through the lilies, Larry having to push us forward, until we reached the wild rice. Larry paused and stood up, searching southwest of us for water. He decided there wasn’t enough water that way to attempt to keep the canoe moving. Sitting back down, he pushed the canoe backwards turning the bow ever so slightly to the southeast. Until we reached the spot in which we’d entered the lily patch and were facing south, the direction we had come. Then back along the way we had come, seeing it all from a different perspective.

honey-and-canoeing-204Near the bridge, instead of landing and ending our canoe adventure, Larry took us up the side channel on the left. Past the beaver lodge we couldn’t see, we heard rustling in the vegetation along the bank to our left, Larry said, “probably a muskrat.” A lovely snag, still standing tall, hung over the channel as it curved gently to the right. In one of the branches extending over, high above the water sat a kingfisher. This time we were much closer so I got a better look at it. It had a patch of russet feathers near its tail, a band of white across its breast. A cape of bluish gray fastened around its shoulders, flung across its back, a white band around its neck a tie or scarf of some sort, a white dot between its dark, almost black beak and its tiny black eyes. Its belly was white with a sliver of russet along its side like a sheath. The bird did look like a king of old out on a hunting party. I was thrilled to have an opportunity to observe it before it dove off the branch with a laugh. Another one flew off in the distance too making the noise as it took flight, Larry asked, “Does the noise help it fly I wonder?” Like a human grunts and groans while doing heavy lifting.

honey-and-canoeing-206The trees to our right tapered out, while those on the left continued on a little longer. The channel wasn’t very small, wider than most of the other one we’d just traversed. Again the wild rice closed in around us, and it became narrower and narrower, until you couldn’t fit two of the canoe side by side. Then the water almost seemed to disappear entirely. Larry said, “If we could have kept going through over there, this is where we would’ve come through.” He expertly backed the canoe up and turned us around. The channel opened up to the size of a small river again. Dead snags grew up above the trees to our right. Small birds perched on the uppermost branches, female or juvenile red wing black birds. They appeared unbothered by our passing. Cattails grew among the wild rice. We observed a few more kingfishers flying about in the distance. As we neared the landing, I marveled at the sagittaria which was still blossoming. We landed the canoe; I climbed out first, and pulled the canoe up further on to the bank, then Larry stepped out to. As he was backing the truck up, I took note of a flowering turtlehead near an elm tree. We loaded up the canoe and decided to drive along 84 one more time checking for hatchlings.

Larry spotted one, stopped, and moved it off the road. He repeated the procedure a couple more times. Then I spotted some before Larry did, and then he had me get out and move them off the road. We rescued another six turtles and found one dead one. Larry moved it off the road too. We also saw a dead fox squirrel on the road. With that we headed home, back to work. Larry said, “We should get out again soon.”

Exploration in August (Part I)

August 23, 2016

honey-and-canoeing-125Over a month slipped by without my noticing, even Larry was wondering how it could be almost the end of August already. We decided it was time to get the canoe out again. We left Larry’s before 9:00 am. Larry said we’d canoe up McCarthy Lake since the water was still high enough and he wanted to see how much wild rice there was in the lake. However, instead of pulling off by the bridge right away, we continued driving along highway 84 cautiously. Larry said, “I want to look for any hatchlings first.” The baby Blanding’s turtles were starting to leave their nests and head for water, which means crossing the highway. Some people aren’t mindful of the turtles crossing and end up killing a few, so Larry and I drove on keeping an eye out for hatchlings. Larry explained, “There haven’t been many hatchlings this year. There’s a dearth in turtles and snakes this year.” So we weren’t expecting to find very many.

honey-and-canoeing-128Not too far beyond the bridge, we saw one in the middle of the road. Larry stopped the truck and got out. He picked up the turtle and handed it in to me so I could look at it. “It’s so cute isn’t it?” Larry asked. It hadn’t pulled into the shell completely and I was able to observe its egg tooth. The tiny turtle didn’t even fill my palm – indeed very cute. I handed it back to Larry and he placed it in the vegetation, on the other side of the road so at least it would be safe from vehicles. We continued driving. Further ahead, we spotted another turtle. Larry stopped, got out and picked it up. He was about to place it on the other side of the road like he had with the other one, but he changed his mind because he’d be putting it in a cornfield. He brought it into the truck and put it in a pail in the truck, “I don’t want to release it into a cornfield.” I concurred with that decision. We didn’t get too much farther when we found another turtle. Larry picked it up and put it in the pail too, “I don’t want to release it into the bean field either.”

honey-and-canoeing-130“No,” I agreed. We continued driving, rolling prairie replaced corn and soybean fields. At the wooden sign for the Kellogg Weaver Dunes, we turned around and headed back. Past the dunes and prairie, the fields and state land, we turned right on to a narrow drive on to state land bordering McCarthy. Larry parked the truck and took the turtles out. There was a thick line of trees in front of us and to the right of us. In the trees in front of us must be a pond. Larry released the turtles there saying, “There. Promise me, you’ll grow to be big turtles.” I had stepped out to take a look but the mosquitoes were so thick coming out of the trees, I quickly retreated back to the truck. Larry was close behind me.

honey-and-canoeing-132We pulled back on to the highway, heading toward the bridge. No sooner had we pulled on to the highway and there was another turtle in the road. Larry stopped the truck and hopped out. He returned to the truck with the turtle. Handing it to me he said, “We’ll release it in McCarthy.” I was delighted to hold the baby turtle, so small and fragile. I held it up so I could look at it. Tail, head and legs were pulled up into its shell, eyes peering out at me. I was wonderstruck. Again, we hadn’t made it very far before we stopped to rescue another one. Larry handed that one to me as well. I was thrilled. I liked the feeling of their feet crawling on my palm, their little toes and tails tickled. We were surprised and delighted we hadn’t found any dead ones yet.

honey-and-canoeing-137At the bridge, Larry pulled off and backed the truck up to the canoe landing. The plants had grown quite tall since May. Curly dock, golden rod, some grasses and plants I couldn’t identify. Larry told me to put the turtles in the pail to bring along with us. I did so, then grabbed my camera and hopped out. Larry had already climbed into the back of the truck to unfasten the canoe. Together, we unloaded the canoe. While Larry moved the truck, I took in the changes of the lake since May. Other than the tall plants that we had to wade through to get to the water, the first thing I noticed was that the beaver lodge was completely hidden by plants. The plants, predominately cattails, and golden rod had grown up over the lodge. The trees, including those on the distant bluff seemed fuller and darker green. The vegetation across the opposite bank, along the smaller channel, was much denser, taller and greener. Now there was less variety in color, although some of the trees further up the channel had leaves beginning to yellow or turn orange. The water still perfectly mirrored the trees and bluffs, that hadn’t changed. And I still marveled in the beauty of those reflections. There was some cattails and sagittaria in the water along the edges, and towering wild rice plants. A large white bird flew off in the distance, west of us. I pointed it out to Larry; he identified it as a great egret. We got into the canoe and headed out. Larry told me I didn’t need to paddle.

“The wild rice is in bloom,” Larry said. We got close to a wild rice plant so I could see the flowers for the first time. They’re small and narrow like barley berries. Rose colored, dangling down like bleeding heart flowers. You wouldn’t expect a grass to have such a pretty flower. “Pretty, aren’t they?” Larry asked.

Awed, I replied, “Yes.”

It was a beautiful day for canoeing, not quite so hot and muggy like it had been and there wasn’t much for wind. As always being on the water was relaxing and restorative – this time I wasn’t thinking about much, just enjoyed relaxing in the canoe and taking in the changes on the lake. What had been a very wide channel in May had filled in considerably with vegetation – a lot of wild rice.

Larry said, “There’s more wild rice here than I thought. We’ll go as far as we can. As soon as we start to get stuck we’ll turn around.”

“All right.”

honey-and-canoeing-141It was so peaceful, only the sound of birds interrupted the silence. We canoed up the “main” channel, following along our course in May. To our left, a long island of trees and stately snags, a gap in the trees then a more round island with a clump of trees; it was about here we spotted the sandhill cranes in May, while looking back at the snags at the end of the first island. A kingfisher, larger than I was expecting, flew from the trees of the second island to the trees of the first island, calling out loudly as it flew. It was thrilling to finally see a kingfisher. The barrier of vegetation between the channel and second clump of trees had grown much bigger, the vegetation far more dense and taller, the channel had become a tiny stream in comparison to its May width. The wild rice had grown up thick and tall, not just on our left but on our right too. We observed a marsh hawk flying over. Another kingfisher being chased by tree swallows.

honey-and-canoeing-147Before heading up the channel, like we’d done in May, Larry paddled us over and into the alcove near the landing. The vegetation had grown here too and rimmed it, creating more of a pond like area. Cattails flanked the edge of the north bank. To our right, near the east bank, a great blue heron standing in the water among cattails immediately took flight. We watched it go, admiring its impressive wing span. Though a predator of our precious frogs, we still enjoyed the majestic bird. A few moments later, we startled a wood duck that had been hiding somewhere to our left, flew in front of us and disappeared quickly, squawking as it went. A green heron flew off from the cattails too, near where the blue heron had been but rather than flying northeast it went southeast. My attention was grabbed by the water’s surface – duckweed and coontail, and a thick layer of frothy green algae completely carpeted the water’s surface.

honey-and-canoeing-150We glided into and across the pond to the north bank. Larry paddled west along the vegetation on the edge, looking for a good spot to release the turtles. He was looking for a spot where the duckweed and algae weren’t too thick. Gently placing them in the water, we sat and watched them for a few minutes before continuing on. “Well, we did our best,” Larry said as we left the turtles behind, hoping they would start swimming.

Canoeing Weaver Bottoms (Part II)

july-canoeing-178Further south, we saw a white water lily. So quintessential of story books and fairy tales, you’d expect to see a frog sitting on the pads. Smaller than the lotus, and not nearly as far out of the water, indeed some appear to be sitting on top of the water.

july-canoeing-170Moving along, I spotted the shed skin, called an exuvia, of a dragonfly nymph on the back of a lotus leaf. It looked alien. Only its large head, eyes and face resembled an adult dragonfly. The left behind exuvia looked like it could be alive; one would almost expect it to move. The abdomen looked plated, armored like a dragon hide. The thorax had a white string like object coming out of it, like a pull string. It was dark in color, not at all like the colorful adult that left it behind. Larry halted the canoe so that I could get a good look at the exuvia of the dragonfly nymph. After I had a good look at it, we continued on.

july-canoeing-189More water lilies dotted the water ahead – I just loved them! There was a cluster of an aquatic plant that looked like grass. The water ahead of us opened up with only small patches of lily pads here and there. A large forest of aquatic vegetation was off in the distance. The open water quivered in the wind and sparkled in the sunlight. The bluffs near and far felt comforting. A meadow of lotus plants stretch away to our right, we were no longer in them.

july-canoeing-213Passing water lilies along the way, we grew closer and closer to the lotus meadow and trees ahead. We went into this lotus patch too, again enjoying connecting with the amazing plants. At first, they grow rather thickly, but as we kept pressing on we came to a spot where they weren’t quite as thick, although there were still a lot of them. They were so beautiful and smelled so good. Some had lost their petals already. Larry commented, “They’ve dropped their petals, preparing for sexual activity. Like a woman taking of her clothes – naked.” I was just thinking of the very same imagery just before he said that. Only a few petals clung on, stepals dried and brown.

july-canoeing-251Continuing further, we left the lotus patch behind and began turning west, then northwest to make our way back, Larry said, “You’ll have to help paddle, the wind is too strong.” We paddled hard just to keep heading the right direction. Fighting the wind, it took us almost fifteen minutes to cross the open water. We’d traded the lotus patch for a sagittaria patch. Once we were out of the open and into the sagittaria, Larry said, “I can paddle now so you can take pictures.” Those plants were more slender and graceful.

july-canoeing-253Before long, the sagittaria only patch became more diverse. A few lotus plants stuck up above the sagittaria. And white water lilies here and there were tucked down below, at the water’s surface. To our left was a stunning view, purple pickerelweed and yellow lotus blossoms intermingled. The beauty of the aquatic flower garden can’t really be explained in words. The shade of purple seemed other worldly. We pushed through the pickerelweed, pausing often for me to take photos, which I enjoyed. I was amazed by the beauty. Larry had wanted to get me close to look at the pickerelweed blossoms. Up close they looked more blue than purple. The blue flowers are in clusters on a spike. The blossoms appeared hairy, frizzy like hair coming undone. Up ahead, far off, slightly to the left, I could see the observation deck we’d stood on back in March, looking for migrating waterfowl.  How different the Weaver Bottoms looked then.

july-canoeing-305It’s mind-boggling to think how colorless this area had been in March, now it’s green, yellow, purple and brown. The vibrant, emerald green alone was a lot of color. Fallen petals lay strewn about, like a flower girl had dropped them walking up the aisle in front of the bride. The pickerelweed began to slowly give way to the lotus plants. I marveled at each lotus blossom we passed and each pickerelweed blossom, which were still abundant on our left. On covers of nature magazines are often photos of mountain meadows in full bloom, so many blossoms and colors – it felt and looked like that, looking out over the plants, I couldn’t see any water, making it easy to imagine I was sitting in a meadow instead of in a canoe in the water.

july-canoeing-326While I was marveling at a pickerelweed blossom, a bumble bee showed up also interested in the flower. Larry and I both thought it was fascinating to see a bee pollinating a flower out into the water. We sat and watched her for a few minutes. Watching bees pollinate is extremely mesmerizing and relaxing – such wonder and beauty, so much of the world’s beauty depends on these little creatures.

july-canoeing-334Some distance ahead of us, a train rumbled by, surprisingly not making too much noise to disturb our tranquility. Larry guided us through very slowly so I could continue taking photos. Shortly, the pickerelweed gave way to mainly lotus plants again. Larry continued to push the canoe through the thick patch of vegetation, which was easier than open water with the wind. I had hardly noticed the wind when we were heading the other direction.

july-canoeing-349We left the lotus behind us. I took up my paddle too to keep us going against the fierce wind. About five minutes later we were back at the landing. I observed a white moth, which seemed to almost glow, stuck in the mire of duckweed and algae. The clouds seemed to have increased again. As always, I disembarked from the canoe first and Larry followed suit. While Larry backed the truck down to the landing, I looked out over the water again, enjoying its beauty and incredible healing powers for a few moments longer before helping Larry load the canoe. This place is filled with so much wonder. Reluctantly, I got back into the truck to depart. As we drove away, Larry said we should get out again soon and next time go up Lake McCarthy since the water was still high. He wanted to check on the growth and abundance of the wild rice.

Canoeing Weaver Bottoms (Part I)

July 14, 2016

july-canoeing-022 Larry and I pulled into the Weaver Landing at 8:15 am. Instead of going up McCarthy Lake or going down Schmoker’s channel, we canoed the Weaver Bottoms. Larry backed the truck up to the boat landing. With Larry in the bed of the truck, and me on the ground, we unloaded the canoe. While Larry was moving the truck to a parking space, I enjoyed the view of the Weaver Bottoms, so vast! The sunlight filtered through fluffy clouds, which were beautifully mirrored in the water. Green clusters of aquatic plants stuck up out of the water here and there. On my left, a maple tree’s branches hung out over and above the water. On my left, the trees covered the west bank too, some leaning out over the water. Across the water, far off in the distance, bluffs bordered the river. So blue, with the clouds keeping the sun from casting its full light, everything was a shade of blue. Clouds would shift, a little more sunlight, another color added to the world, plants, aquatic and terrestrial, and algae were green. A dragonfly was stuck in the vegetative and algal gunk on top of the water’s surface. I was fairly certain the large insect was dead. The glimpse of its tail, it looked like a dragon, not a fly, but a great beast of legend, fallen forever.

We put the canoe in the water; Larry held it in place as I stepped in. I sat down, then, simultaneously, Larry and I realized I was in the wrong spot. Oops. I stepped out again, walked to the front of the canoe and stepped in. As I sat down, I said, “Now this feels right.” Larry got in and we pushed off. Being later in the morning, there wouldn’t be much wildlife to observe. So this trip was about the plants rather than the animals.

july-canoeing-026We headed east into a large patch of vegetation. Larry said, “Lots of sagittaria, commonly called arrowhead because of the leaf shape.” It grew quite thickly right ahead of us; we plunged into the forest of sagittaria. It’s an important food for migrating swans. I was just about to ask Larry if the yellow lotus was blooming yet, I read the sight and scent is quite fantastic, when we turned ever so slightly to the right, going around a jut of trees, sticking out on our right – and wow! There was a large patch of blooming yellow lotus in all its breath-taking, stunning lovely splendor. Big and pale yellow – I had entered another dimension. The clouds broke up and scattered, the sun shone brightly on the large blossoms. Larry said, “We’ll go into them so you can get pictures.” I was awed. We glided past more sagittaria, I thought the leaves looked more like spades, the end of shovels rather than arrowheads; digging tools, sitting on the ends of their handles. Their reflections in the water appearing as green smudges. Up ahead there were blotches of purple throughout the green. Larry identified it, “pickerelweed.”

july-canoeing-027It was so relaxing to be in a canoe again and the aquatic plants in bloom added to my contentment. I loved taking in the reflections on the water’s surface – beautiful isn’t adequate to describe it. Priceless paintings can’t compare. Larry slowly turned the canoe southeast. A peninsula, covered in trees, called Montgomery point, stuck out ahead and to the right. Between us and the peninsula were large patches of pickerelweed and yellow lotus. The sun shone through yellow lotus leaves and glared off the water. I was fascinated by water droplets, sometimes more like puddles, on the leaves floating on the water’s surface. Again, I looked in awe at the vastness of the area. Larry wondered why some leaves floated on the water and why some were on stalks sticking up above the water a ways – figured it may have been for energy saving.

july-canoeing-043We finally reached the lotus patch; Larry pushed the canoe into it so we could be among them. We were in a wild flower meadow; a scene out of a story book. Some flowers hadn’t opened yet, only a very few had lost their pedals already. Being among the flowers, at their level was an amazing feeling – so thrilling. Larry said, “I want to get you up close so you can look in to the flower.”

july-canoeing-045We came upon a blossom I could look down into, Larry halted the canoe. It was fantastic. It looked unreal. The stamens were sea anemone waving in an ocean current, perhaps just as colorful too. The long filaments a bright, contrasting orange and the anthers on top white, creating an overall coloration pattern like candy corn. At first glance, the top of the stigma appears to be a circle. It is circular, yes, but bumps out instead of smooth, and appears perforated like the cover on a watering can spout. The perforations were bumped up. The stigma was as yellow as an egg yolk. The bottom, base of the petals, is an Easter yellow, soft, which gently fades into white about half way up. The petals are thinner and rectangular at the bottom, then rounded like a spoon but then come to a rounded point at the very top. The flower had an interesting design. Not a stereotypical “pretty” but a unique, individual kind of pretty. I loved it; it seemed to speak to something deep inside me. It was captivating.

july-canoeing-046Moving forward slowly, I took in another blossom from the side rather than straight down. It wasn’t open as far as the other – the petals weren’t spread out but upright, like a fancy champagne flute. Most of the blossoms were spread open. It had the look and texture of folded cloth napkins at a high class wedding. Floating through the lotus meadow thrilled me. The leaves and blossoms all seemed to be facing the sun. They swayed in the wind. I marveled at the shadows on the leaves of the blossoms cast by the sun. The big waxy leaves were marvelous. I had to touch a couple. At first, I couldn’t catch a whiff of their scent but when I did, I thought it was also quite incredible.

july-canoeing-077We halted again so I could take pictures and really take it all in. Larry instructed me to stand up to get a different perspective. I turned as I was photographing. When I took a picture of Larry, he said, “I’m a flower,” smiling, taking in the flowers. After a few minutes, Larry asked if I was ready to keep moving, I replied, “Yeah, I have plenty of photos.” I reveled in the beauty of the plants and reflections on the water’s surface. Larry wanted me to get a good look (and photo) of the sagittaria flower too. They’re far less showy. The blossoms are small, in whorls of three sitting on an erect stalk. Pretty pink lady bird beetles were mating on the vibrant green stalk. There were round, fuzzy, red brown balls wrapped around a sagittaria stalk, below the flower whorls. At the water’s surface was cool looking algae, yellow green in color, it looked soft and fluffy like cotton balls. Larry also mentioned that there is so much going on below the water’s surface, like coontail.

july-canoeing-108We were getting closer to the tree covered peninsula, going south. We came to a spot where the blooming pickerelweed added purple to the mosaic. The flowers grow on a tall spike. Individual blossoms are tube shaped. The tip of the spike bent slightly. The pickerelweed was like a field of prairie clover. So amazing! I was happy to have had the chance to be out on the water when so many aquatic plants were in bloom. I felt like a princess in an enchanting kingdom. Birds, swallows mostly, swooped down to the water surface all around us, though never getting very close to us. They were catching insects. We startled a female wood duck. Back among the lotus, I felt small but in a good way. This was definitely therapy and rest for a weary soul. The fields of the lotus petals were like a wedding gown. I studied the beauty of the water and a droplet on a leaf. Some of the leaves on the stalks sticking up out of the water have centers that seem collapsed inward, creating a nice little seat (or pocket) for a fairy to sit in. A plant under the water looked like grass. The water was so clear.

Searching For Snapping Turtles

May 31, 2016

snapping-turtles-156Jon Schmoker invited Larry and me to go along with him while he looked for snapping turtles and their nests. The temperatures had warmed up enough over the weekend that the turtles were on the move. Larry and I met up with Jon at his place shortly before 7:00 pm. I hoped we’d actually see the nesting turtles. There had been thunderstorms and rain throughout the afternoon, which had subsided to a few sprinkles off and on by evening. The temperature was high, around sixty seven degrees. High temperatures combined with thunderstorms made for ideal turtle activity. Jon was just finishing loading his ATV with the needed equipment when we arrived. We climbed in, and we were off. We went back up Highway 84 a little bit, pulled into Les Schmoker’s driveway, just before the bridge, continued past his house along the sandy drive, then turned left on the drive, and followed that for a little ways. We stopped near the cornfield on our left, to our right were woods, the same woods which Larry and I carried the canoe through last October. We were southeast of both Jon and Les’ houses.

snapping-turtles-160The cornfield was our destination. The soil was completely sand, ideal nesting grounds. First, Jon showed and explained a test dig to us as we found a spot where a turtle had started digging but decided not to nest there. It was all new to me and exciting; very neat to see the print of the turtle, body, legs and, most prominently, tail in the sand, like a snow angel. It was so exciting to think a turtle had been there perhaps not too many minutes ago. We continued walking through the field. Jon found a nest – the print of the turtle wasn’t visible. Jon carefully poked a stick into the nest to make sure it was actually a nest. Larry joked to Les Schmoker, who had driven over in his truck to see what we were doing, “I feel like I’m watching a diviner search for water.” Jon was able to feel eggs within. However, just double checking, and probably more for my benefit, Jon proceeded to dig up the nest a little. I peered down into the nest and observed four white splotches in the sand, eggs still mostly submerged. Jon very tenderly pulled an egg out so I could get a better look at it. The egg was a small white gray ball, between a ping pong ball and a golf ball in size. snapping-turtles-162He explained that there is a white spot on the egg, the baby turtle attaches to that with its egg tooth, so it should be facing up. Hatchlings use their egg tooth and claws to break out of their shell and then dig their way out of the nest. From there, they have to find water. Jon carefully returned the egg and then filled the hole back in, covering the nest up better than the female turtle had done. Next, he placed a wire cage over the nest and pounded stakes in to hold it. He stuck a pole with tape on it inside too, to mark the spot when the corn is tall. The cage will hopefully keep raccoons, skunks and coyotes from eating the eggs. Fox, mink and opossum will also dig up nests and eat the eggs and crows may snack on a hatchling as it makes its trek to the water. The destruction rate of nests in some areas is 90% and death rates of hatchlings is from 60% – 100%, which means of the 10 -100 eggs lain by a female in one clutch, only about 30% (on average) will survive to adulthood.  Adult snapping turtles have few predators other than humans and their vehicles.

snapping-turtles-165We walked a little further and found another nest, same procedure. Jon, citing his experiences, said, “snapping turtles won’t go further than 100 yards away from water. And they like knolls.” Snapping turtles will travel up to nearly 900 yards to find suitable nesting sites but they are susceptible to desiccation (rapidly losing body water by evaporation) so 100 yards is ideal.

Larry asked, “Do you find them anywhere else or just in the tilled field?”

Jon replied, “Mainly in the field. Easy digging.” A few minutes later, Jon said, “I was hoping there’d be some mamas out here so Bethany could take pictures.” As he put stakes in, Jon mentioned he found nests that were just eggshells and how disappointing it is to see the nests raided. Raccoons, skunks, even moles have destroyed some nests Jon has looked after. Jon told us of how his interest in protecting/aiding snapping turtles started. It began in 2000, when he built his house – there was a turtle nesting in the sand. He then began collecting eggs and incubating them. When they hatched, he’d release the baby turtles near the water across the road and prairie. He figured if he could just get them to the water they’d have a chance. He estimated he has released thousands over the years.

We heard frogs singing in the distance, probably hanging out in the pond closer to Les’ house. Larry asked if I knew what it was. “A frog, but I can’t remember which. I hear it at home though.”

He replied, “It’s a tree frog.”

snapping-turtles-178I replied, “Yeah, now I recognize it.” Then Larry walked back to get another cage and stakes for Jon while we walked to another nest Jon had found earlier, marked and covered with a larger cage. As he knelt down, Jon almost crushed a perfect, dead dragonfly. He handed it to me. It was such a beauty. A darner, its size and coloring – blue and green – gave it away. As we got back into the ATV and I showed the dragonfly to Larry, he wondered, “Why would you want to have such bright colors?” There were no more nests in the field. Sadly, no mama turtles either. So we headed out, back along the driveway, past the small cabins, barn, and Les’ house and on to the road. As we drove, Jon was telling us stories about moles digging in the nests and how sometimes he would water the nests to keep the eggs from getting too warm in the summer heat. It had begun misting again and felt cooler moving at that speed along the road; I was starting to feel cold and was glad to be nestled between the two men. We continued past Jon’s place, the prairie on our left. Just beyond Jon’s place, Larry pointed out a sandhill crane almost hiding in the little bluestem in the prairie. We’d already passed it when Jon asked if I wanted a picture of it; I replied, no, thinking by slowing down it would spook and fly away.

snapping-turtles-209We parked the ATV in front of the gate where Larry and I had explored at the beginning of April. Jon mentioned he’d collected eggs there before. Larry asked, “Will you collect eggs from here?”

“No, I just want her to get a picture.” He thought we’d be more likely to see a turtle there. We walked along the sandy driveway following Larry’s and my previous path. Larry and Jon were curious about the trees being cut down too. We came to the dead animal lying in the middle of the path; it had decayed quite a bit since the 22nd. Jon said, “Fawn,” seeing the back bone. He and Larry bent over, examining it. Larry said, “It’ got canine teeth though,” which ruled out a fawn as a possibility. They both concurred it was most likely an opossum. I said, “I have a picture of it with its tail.” Larry asked if it was an opossum tail. I thought it could have been. We continued walking through the trees.

snapping-turtles-185Just before the last tree, among the cut branches in the mud, I spied a large turtle, “Look!” I pointed it out to Jon and Larry. They paused to take a look. We all admired the large snapping turtle; its green bumpy shell, the quintessential “turtle shell”, brown limbs, long claws on its feet, long tail. Her shell isn’t actually green but brown, black or olive; it just looks green because it’s covered in algae and mud. She turned her head to look at me. She blinked her eyes at me. Jon said, “I always thought they looked prehistoric.” Indeed with their, thick legs, long claws, the shape of their head, saw tooth projections on their tails, and the serrations on the back edge of their dorsal shell, they do look akin to dinosaurs.

snapping-turtles-202We continued walking, out from the trees into the field. Jon said, “The turtles become stoic when they’re nesting so they aren’t dangerous.”Jon told us he had to quit incubating the eggs because someone from the DNR called him and said, “We know what you’re doing with the turtle eggs and you’re going to stop or we’ll fine you per egg.” Jon was just trying to give the turtles a fighting chance. He told us stories of seeing raccoons waiting behind the nesting mother, eating the eggs as she laid them.

Larry asked, “Who did you talk to from the DNR?”

Jon replied, “You know, I don’t know, Larry.”

Larry replied, “You should be able to get a permit under Steve.” Since snapping turtles are not currently listed as a threatened species, it seems the DNR is not as concerned about their protection. They told Jon he could pass disease on to the turtles, which is true, but highly unlikely. Jon’s counter argument is that random people can volunteer to move turtles off the road. Larry thought if we were still living in a natural system we should leave the turtles alone, but he said we are no longer living in a natural system. Humans have greatly altered the natural system. In the case of the turtles; humans till fields so all the turtles nest in one area and the predators come to a buffet. The practice of planting corn to feed wild predators artificially boosts their population and concentrates them in that same area. Given that we exacerbated the issue, humans need to assist wildlife to ensure their survival but a balance has to be achieved that is beneficial to all species.

snapping-turtles-189In 1984, the Minnesota DNR listed snapping turtles as a special concern species since the commercial harvest could have a detrimental effect on local populations of snapping turtles. There was also concern about environmental contaminants after a study showed high levels of PCBs in the liver, eggs, fat and muscle tissue of turtles living in the Mississippi River and the effects of these contaminants on the turtles reproductive capacity were (and still are) unknown. In 2001, a study was done on turtle populations in the Weaver Bottoms area which included snapping turtles. The study found reduced numbers of snapping turtles in the area. A skewed sexual ratio, a lower percentage of females than there should have been, suggested commercial harvesting may be partly responsible since something is impacting females more than males. (The harvest season runs from March to November, the nesting season is May to June…nesting females make easy targets. The current harvesting rules allow the harvest of the most reproductive females and also very young females.) Due to the findings in the 2001 study, new regulations for harvesting snapping turtles were made and implemented in 2004. Licenses are now restricted to Minnesota residents, there’s now a limit on the number of traps permitted, and a moratorium was placed on the sale of new licenses, which means they are no longer issuing new licenses. The licenses can be passed on to family member of a licensee. Prior to the changes, harvesters were not required to keep track of how many turtles they caught; now they must keep a daily log of trap locations and how many turtles are harvested which must be submitted monthly during the trapping season. These changes led to the delisting of snapping turtles as a special concern. However, Jon says he has been seeing a decrease in snapping turtles over the last few years.

Jon explained, “Turtles stay in the water for twelve years before coming out to lay eggs.” Snapping turtles can become sexually mature by five to seven years old, but ten to twelve years seems to be more common. Snapping turtles mate in the water. Mating occurs during chance encounters between April and October. Courtship, which takes place at the bottom of the water, entails facing one another and making sideward sweeps of their necks. The male then forcibly mount the female, griping her carapace with his claws and bites her neck and head. Females can retain viable sperm for several years.

snapping-turtles-204We saw another turtle plodding along in the sandy field, “Make sure you get a picture of her tracks.” Amazing and exciting, I was thrilled! We observed three more backed into nests. It was so awesome to witness. The female turtle digs the nest entirely with their hind legs. She guides each deposited egg into the hole with her hind legs. I walked up to each one, taking a good look at them, totally engrossed by them. It wasn’t my first time seeing a wild snapping turtle, but it was my first time observing their amazing trek out of the water into the sand to dig a nest and lay their eggs. (The turtles I saw hadn’t started depositing eggs yet.) I was somewhat lost in the turtle world while the men continued to talk about the plight of the snapping turtles.

snapping-turtles-197Jon said, “I don’t know what happens when they get in the water.”

Larry replied, “You’ve eliminated a lot of the threat by getting them that far.” Although they are better off in the water, young turtles they can still fall prey to herons, bitterns, and bullfrogs, but their list of predators does go down considerably.

After a pause, Larry asked, “Do you ever mark them?”

snapping-turtles-201“No,” answered Jon. We observed the turtles for a little longer then headed back up the driveway to the ATV and drove back to Jon’s place. Jon would like to see a study done on the snapping turtles, from egg to adulthood diets, travel, winter areas and why we have a decline in numbers. Further study also needs to be done on the effect of contaminants in snapping turtles. An analysis of harvest patterns is needed to assess its impact on local populations. Temperature has an effect on turtle gender, more females result from warmer temperatures and more males from cooler temperatures; this may be a concern with global climate changes. Habitat loss may also be another concern.

snapping-turtles-191On the bright side, snapping turtles eat such a large variety of foods; if they specialized in only a few food items, their conservation would be more difficult. They’ll eat various types of aquatic plants, insects, leeches, earthworms, snails, clams, fresh water sponges, crayfish, fish eggs, fish, tadpoles, frogs, toads, amphibian eggs, salamanders, snakes, small turtles, birds, small mammals and carrion.

There is one more thing in the favor of the snapping turtles of Minnesota: ordinary people, without biology or herpetology degrees, care about the future and presence of snapping turtles in our waters and are making efforts to protect and preserve this incredible creature.

A Solitary Prairie Visit

May 22, 2016

snapping-turtles-057This evening, I went to the Weaver Dunes on my own, at about 5:00 pm and stayed until 7:00 pm. Going at that time of day, the only creatures out and about, besides people driving by on the road, were insects and ticks (I found four on me!) so there wasn’t much to see. I went back to the area Larry and I explored on April 8 when the wind changed our canoeing plans; south of Pritchard’s road on an old field driveway blocked with a gate and a Wildlife Area sign. I walked through the gap in the gates and past the dead tree. I sat down to write in the shade of the red cedar, not far from the stately snag. This was where grassland met woodland. A beetle scurried about in the sand. I noticed a dead bumblebee lying in the sand not far from the busy beetle. I may have sat there for almost an hour before a tick climbing on my arm changed my mind about sitting on the ground. So I stood up and followed the driveway into the trees. It looked totally different. Someone had cut down several trees, leaving nasty gashes in the landscape and ruining the effects of the tree tunnel that I had so enjoyed in April.

snapping-turtles-013I observed turtle tracks right next to snake tracks in the sand. I enjoyed the cattail unraveling, puffy and hairy. A dead animal, beyond recognition lay on the drive about halfway through the former tree tunnel. I only looked at it for a moment before I continued walking. The drive opened up into the field/prairie. Part of the field was worked, nothing but sand.  I took in the prairie and the bluffs – marveled at the scale and reveled in the beauty of the amber-colored little blue stem. I continued to follow our April path, turning to my right; trees were cut down along here too, quite the mess. Some prairie plants were flowering. Where the trees on my right fall away creating an oxbow, I stopped and turned around.

snapping-turtles-022Back in what had been the tree tunnel, I took a better look at the remains of the dead animal; wondering what it had been. It wasn’t very big. As in April, I took in the water on either side of the driveway in the tunnel and admired the trees and dried vegetation. I marveled at the snag again one last time before leaving, back through the gate.

snapping-turtles-074I drove down the road further to see the pond where I observed mergansers in earlier this spring. The waterfowl were gone but the pond was still quite lovely to look at. I stopped briefly to admire a red ant and some flowers and take in the dunes before I was on the move again. I headed back the way I came. Not far along the highway, I pulled off on to a low maintenance road, narrower than most driveways. It was a bit bumpy but I wanted to check out the prairie by the windmill which Larry had shown me earlier. I parked near the windmill and got out to walk around. Parts of the surrounding prairie were blackened by a prescribed burn done recently. I didn’t linger long there since it was already getting late. Of course, I had to stop on the bridge to take a few photos and enjoyed the new leaves. I left the sand prairie with hopes of returning soon.snapping-turtles-088

Canoeing Alongside Geese (Part IV)

canoe-trip-314We meandered onward up the channel. Larry said, “There’s an otter right ahead of us.” It was swimming directly ahead of the canoe, several feet away. We observed it for a few moments, only its head and tail stuck above the water surface, then Larry corrected himself, “nope, a muskrat.” A minute later it noticed us and dived under the water. It swam around a clump of alders – swimming under the water’s surface. I heard it pop up behind the alders. Then it peeked out behind the alders at us.  I turned just a little bit, hoping to get a photo of it but he was gone, behind the alders and under the water. It was thrilling to know muskrats were there and to see one, though briefly.

We watched the minnows in the water; like a whole other world beneath the water surface – the vegetation looked like an aquatic forest. Insects skipped across the water. Midges buzzed past our ears. An insect was sitting upon a water lily leaf; my first thought was it was a moth, so I said, “Moth.”

Larry corrected me, “Actually cadisfly.” as he came up alongside the leaf. “Do you want to take a picture of it?”

I said, “No.” I probably should have said yes and backed up to take a picture, although it may not have stayed there.

We continued onward. The song of male red wing black birds continued to fill the morning. I always enjoy watching them because their wings go out and up, tail feathers lift upward, chests puff out when they sing. Larry said, “The big red apple.” The red on their wings does indeed appear bigger when they call. “Look at me, aren’t I so handsome?” Larry said.

I took in the trees hanging over the channel. This was the perfect spot – trees and water. Peaceful. Solitude. Birds calling and fish jumping didn’t break the peace and solitude in the least but only added to the wildness and wonder. I appreciated the bounty and diversity of life here. Wonderful to be a part of it all, if even only for a moment – soak in the solitude.

canoe-trip-324The channel became a little smaller, and we went around some bends. And there was the tree where the great blue heron still sat. “Great” was indeed a deserved title for the magnificent bird. This time as we approached, it flew away. Larry said, “Kingfisher ahead not far from the dead tree over there.” Unfortunately, I didn’t get a very good look at it before it flew away. Tree swallows were swooping about in the air. “Sand piper to your right. Right to your right. Right next to you.” I finally saw it as it flew away. “Spotted sand piper.” A flashy pair of wood ducks swam in the channel ahead of us, such grace and elegance. They were incredibly beautiful birds. It was the first time I’ve been able to observe and take in wood ducks at such a close range to be able to fully appreciate how elegant they are. I marveled at the drake’s red eye. They also flew away as we drew near, but not before I was able to take a couple amazing photos of them.

canoe-trip-329We then came upon another family of geese, “I hope we don’t disturb them too much and they’ll just go up on the bank,” commented Larry.  I couldn’t see the geese, and thought they were in the water ahead of us, Larry instructed, “Left, hard left. Right up along the bank, a family of geese.” I was able to get a glimpse of them as they disappeared on to the bank. The channel became very narrow; the trees overhanging and snags lay partly submerged in the water. I heard the wild sound of a sandhill crane somewhere beyond the trees, my heart leaped at the sound. Larry paddled the canoe through the opening in the old dam. Ahead, a log hosted a sunbathing turtle. I thought to myself, ectotherms aren’t the only ones who enjoy lying in the sun, but many endotherms enjoy it too. “Do you see that turtle?”

“A map turtle,” replied Larry. I wasn’t fast enough to take a picture of it. It disappeared quickly into the water.

“It’s warming up enough now, they’re going to start coming up out of the water to sit in the sun and warm up,” Larry explained.

canoe-trip-335As we passed by the log, I spotted the beaver lodge. it had become so over grown, it was almost completely concealed by the vegetation. I’m not sure I would have seen it if I hadn’t known to be looking for it. The logs were piled together creating a domed lodge.  I took note of the tree that was drilled with holes by a woodpecker and the log we climbed out on last October. I found the presence of the trees all around us relaxing and I enjoyed their reflections in the water. There isn’t a better way to start the morning. We rounded a bend and the bridge came into view. Between the lodge and bridge were a lot of stumps whose trunks were sawed by beavers and hauled away. The curly pond weed was starting to flower. There were some places thick with algae, bubbly green blanketing the water’s surface.

A tree had been gnawed on by a beaver but not cut. Larry said, “Wow, they do not like that ash tree. First they stripped its bark, and then they amputated a few limbs.” – I told Larry it looked different then it had. – “We’ll poke around a little bit upstream.”

A few moments later, Larry asked, “Did you hear the kingfisher?” Then he imitated the call. I think I heard it, but I didn’t see it.

canoe-trip-398We went under the bridge. I marveled at how deep the water was there. I said something to Larry about it. “Yeah, this is part of the old Zumbro River channel before it was impounded. The channel to the left stays pretty deep too.” We went into the little alcove, the same one in which we saw the beaver in March. There was small path through the vegetation to get to the pond like area , but it had become pretty overgrown. I saw some turtles on a log; they slid off into the water so fast. “Lot of painted turtles.” Larry said over and over again, “Turtle. Turtle.” Noses were sticking up out of the water in many places; it took a few moments to notice that’s what they were. Larry paddled the canoe to the north bank, near a clump of alder trees. I saw a small mammal skitter across an opening between the alders and rushes. Three dead elm trees stood on the bank, Larry wanted to examine them. He got as close as he could with the canoe. “Hopefully I won’t get too wet. Hope it won’t go over my boots.”  With his pole, he walked to the front of the canoe and stepped on small clumps of vegetation. He looked around the trees and soon returned to the canoe.  We then went across the pond, along the east bank back to the south end of the pond. Referring to a clump of alders, Larry said, “There’s where you spotted the beaver.” We kept going out of the pond and back toward the bridge. A red wing black bird perched on a stem, walking down it to the water, seemed to be getting something. “There’s a painted turtle!” Pause. “There are two!” I exclaimed.

Larry said, “There’s a lot of that right now. They’re mating like crazy. I wonder what their courtship is like. Hey babe, I move slow but…”

I replied, “I don’t know. They don’t sing or chirp like frogs and birds.” Curious. We arrived at the bank near the bridge. I stepped out and pulled the canoe further up to make it easier for Larry. We loaded up the canoe. Larry picked up a silver maple pod and said, “These start to fall in conjunction with the water level going down. Water level is up. Then as it starts to recede there’s exposed mud. The silver maple pod drops and grows. Isn’t it a wonder?” With that we left.